Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

Intention: Orwell tells of his experiences in Burma, where he was a sub-divisional police officer.  This piece was written to share his experiences with the people of Burma and to reveal the societal standards that he was pressured to comply to.
Orwell’s intention in this piece is also to inform people of the negatives of imperialism through his own personal experience.

Imagery: Orwell draws us into his story through the use of detailed imagery.  The “sneering yellow faces” (580) of the men of Burma that constantly insulted him paints an image for the reader and allows the reader to picture the menacing faces of these men.  Orwell discusses a dead man’s body “sprawling in the mud” (582).  Instead of finishing that idea there, Orwell continues on and describes in detail what he saw; “He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony,” (583).  This imagery brings the story to life and allows the reader to feel like he/she is experiencing Burma alongside Orwell.  This vivid image of a dead man causes the reader to feel some sort of emotion, whether it be sympathetic or disgusted; pathos adds to the effectiveness of Orwell’s story.

Quotation: “For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives,’ and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him.  He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it,” (584).  I love this quote because along with the imagery it contains, it hits the main point of the piece; Orwell was pressured to conform to what the natives expected of him.  He initially did not want to shoot the elephant.  It was a working elephant, “comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery” (583), but a man had been killed by this animal and the people wanted it dead.  Orwell ended up shooting the elephant, fulfilling the wishes of the Burmese people.  By killing the elephant, Orwell’s action causes him to start to become the person that the Burmese people expect him to be.

Pathos: The death of the elephant contains pathos; the creature, seemingly harmless, took over a half-hour to die.  It struggled, it was “powerless to move and yet powerless to die,” (586).  Orwell again uses imagery to bring out how awful it was to see the elephant die by saying “the tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock,” (586).  We, as readers, feel sorry for the elephant and its suffering.  The elephant was not supposed to die, but because of the native people and Orwell’s inability to follow his morals, it was killed.  Orwell himself could not stand to see nor hear the elephant die, and he reflects this tortured emotion onto his readers.

—Vanessa Petranek

One of the most powerful quotes in the essay reads, “All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.” The internal conflict Orwell faced every day while working in Burma is made clear through this one sentence, and it sets the tone for the entire essay before he even begins telling the main story he set out to tell.

Orwell suggests that by playing the role of master out of a sense of duty, one can actually become the tyrannical figure that he himself despises. This reminds me of the Nazis in World War II. I don’t think all of the Nazis were always bad people; they were influenced, changed, and brainwashed by Hitler, and were probably afraid themselves. In a similar way, Orwell hated his job and did not agree with the imperialism he was forcing onto the people of Burma. Despite this, he did things that the natives wanted him to do, even if he didn’t want to. In this essay, Orwell describes how he shot an elephant, even though he didn’t want to, in order to impress the natives, and do what they expect him to. He says, “They did not like me, but with the magic rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching.” This quote shows how strong of an influence the natives had on him, and proves that by becoming a tyrant, he destroyed his own freedom.

Throughout the essay, Orwell describes how he acted against his own morals in order to impress the natives and to make them respect him. He describes the internal conflict he experiences when faced with the decision of whether or not he should shoot the elephant. The only explanation Orwell can provide as to why he make the decision to shoot the elephant when he knew he didn’t want to is the negative effects of imperialism. When describing himself, and many other enforcers of imperialism, he says, “He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives,’ and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” This explanation gives Orwell’s audience an insight into his thought process, establishes a connection between himself and his audience, and uses pathos to make the audience pity him, and dislike imperialism, which goes toward the intention of the piece.

–Kayla Gay

1. In this essay, Orwell uses colloquial diction throughout the narrative. Using words like bazaars, Raj, saecula saeculorum, Davidian, coolie, paddy fields, sahib, Burmans, dahs, Coringhee, and others to describe people and things of the story. This language helps the reader perceive the surroundings and setting of the story, which is identified to be in Moulmein, Burma. Terms familiar only to the Burmese and common things to these people make the reader feel like an outsider, just as Orwell did as a European police man. The language used by Orwell adds to the theme and intention that outsiders are sometimes pressured to do immoral things to fit in with others.

2. The reader can easily tune in to the visuals of the story by reading imagery about the events, setting, and people Orwell sees. When the speaker encounters the elephant for the first time, he sees, “At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass.” These details effect and captivate readers to feel the emotions of the speaker and understand where he is and what he sees in Burma. This enhances the rural tone of the piece and provides context.

3. The genre of this essay is an anecdote or narrative, making the piece feel more personal and vulnerable. Since Orwell uses this and speaks in first person, readers can feel directly part of the story, events, and in tune with the thoughts of the man about to shoot the elephant.

–Sophie Needham

The intention of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is to inform the readers that imperialism has negative consequences on the enforcers of imperialism as well as on the victims of imperialism.

Orwell effectively draws the attention of his readers by beginning his piece with an appeal to pathos. The first sentence beings, “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people”. This opening line appeals to pathos because people may know what it feels like to be hated and would feel pity for others who have to experience it. This line also implies rhetorical questions, such as “Why was he hated?” and “Who hated him?” which help to draw the readers’ attention by giving them a hope to learn the answers to these questions by continuing reading.

Orwell uses an appeal to ethos early in the piece to establish credibility for his controversial actions that occur later. This appeal to ethos is present in the line, “Theoretically–and secretly, of course–I was all for the Burmese and against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear.” This line demonstrates that despite the actions that he is committing, he does have a sense of morals that readers can respect. He recognizes that what he is doing is probably wrong; he just feels that he doesn’t have a choice.

A memorable quote from this piece is its final sentence, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” After considering the different opinions others had reached about whether or not he should have shot the elephant, Orwell concludes by musing on whether any of them had thought that he had committed such a controversial act for such a trivial-seeming reason. This effectively leaves the reader questioning a system (imperialism) that can cause moral people to perform bad deeds for minor reasons. Thus, readers are convinced of Orwell’s opinion that imperialism is negative for everyone involved.

–Alex Stevens

– One of my favorite passages of this essay was when the speaker had realized a crowd had gathered around him, “I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes– faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a magic trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized I would have to shoot the elephant after all.” This excerpt holds pathos because it shows a sudden change in the natives’ attitude towards Orwell, going from hatred to excitement at the prospect of the officer shooting the elephant. In turn, the crowd’s excitement makes the audience feel almost disgusted by their excitement about the prospect of killing the elephant. Readers also begin to pity the speaker because he has realized that he cannot resist the pressure of the Burmans’ expectations of him, even if it goes against his own morals.

– Orwell’s method of delivery in this essay helps to make it’s pathos more effective. Orwell’s decision to write it as an anecdote from a first-person perspective makes it easier to relate with the speaker and his internal struggles throughout the anecdote. I personally think that this first person delivery made moments like when Orwell examined the dead man’s body and the death of the elephant itself seem more harrowing.

– This essay also holds some ethos, since the writer/speaker actually lived through the struggle of working for an imperialistic empire, having to constantly be around people who hated him, and having to shoot the elephant to please others. The fact that this real life experience was retold by Orwell himself makes the story more credible than if it had been retold by someone else, which gives the essay ethos.

–Mira Bauer

“The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at,” This quote stands out to me because it sums out the futility of the British occupation of India. Time, money, and lives were sacrificed partly for the sake of pride. Entering a room and walking right back out is embarrassing, and Britain wanted to preserve their image because image is part of power.

The elephant death description was quite lengthy and absolutely dripping in pathos. The audience is forced to imagine a terrified elephant screaming in agony for 30 minutes. The horrific description helps the reader get a sense of the pain and suffering that Britain inflicted upon India during the occupation.

Including a narrative like the story of the elephant to criticize the occupation is more effective than writing a simple list of condemnations. Orwell builds ethos by sharing his own experience of being hated by the Burmans. In addition, using the analogy of shooting the elephant provides a stunning visual image that builds pathos. With the addition of Orwell’s emotion and credibility the audience can clearly see the logic behind Britain’s occupation.

— Hannah Doll

The intention of the essay is to describe how Orwell was pressured into a decision based on the social standards of the area he was in.  Support for this intention comes from the lines, “I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary,” and, “As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him.”  These two quotes prove that Orwell did not have any intention on shooting the elephant, and even when he saw the elephant he still had no desire to kill it.  However when he was standing in front of the local people, he was under extreme pressure and was forced to make a decision he did not want to make.

The entire piece is filled with pathos with all of the description and imagery used.  Some of the sentences used to describe Orwell’s surroundings are very raw and intense which evokes a feeling of sympathy from the reader.  To bring out this feeling of sympathy for himself, Orwell takes multiple paragraphs to describe the slow death of the elephant.  This feeling of sympathy helps the reader to connect to the story and feel like they are in Orwell’s place.  They can use the vivid descriptions to relate to their own lives.

Quote: ” I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”  This quote is so memorable because almost everyone at some point has looked back on a decision or set of decsions they have made and wondered the same thing.  The pressure of society is not only present in Lower Burma, but it is present in every society around the world.  Every person that is part of a group, club, organization, or any larger community can feel the pressure to do what the mass wants.  Even when we are completely alone we can still be influenced by the world and people around us.

–Samantha Smith

Orwell’s careful arrangement of “Shooting an Elephant” is a huge part of what makes the essay so well regarded. He begins with an anecdotal description of how hated he was while working in Burma and then begins to set up the incident that led to him shoot the elephant. He slows down the pace of the essay, taking his time to describe the elephant’s agonizing death for dramatic effect, and then concludes with the discussions of that followed this provocative event. Orwell is skilled at combining personal narrative with overall social commentary.

In regards to neutrality on social issues, “Shooting an Elephant” provides a sharp contrast with King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.  King’s letter focuses on how problematic indifference is in the face of injustice, where Orwell’s story shows how, despite his belief that “imperialism was an evil thing” (Orwell 581) he simply did his job as a police officer.  Both are effective in encouraging their respective audiences to be involved in social issues, they simply use different methods. While King leads by example and his letter explains his justification for his actions, Orwell admits his own flaws and tells his story in hopes his readers will not be disconnected from the real issues.

The choice of subject for this piece, both the story of shooting an elephant and the larger analysis of imperialism, are topics that spark debate. Shooting an elephant is a rare situation to be in, and provides for an attention-grabbing title and something the reader will likely have strong opinions about. Connecting that unique event with the more common, but still controversial, subject of imperialism allows Orwell to effectively capture the reader’s attention.

— Maria Busken

Throughout  “Shooting an Elephant”, Orwell often talks about how he feels alienated from the native Burmese people and did not enjoy the work he was doing.  Though he makes it clear that he does not agree with everything the British Empire stands for, he still willingly follows its command.  He claims he “was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors” and that many of the things he saw the British do to the Burmese “oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.”  These both show how against the actions of the British he is.  Yet, right after he tells the reader about how guilty he feels, he also says he “could get nothing into perspective” and continues to do his job.

Even though Orwell seems reluctant to serve the British Empire, he willing chose to do this work.  Orwell entered the Imperial Police and chose to be posted in Burma.  So while readers want to empathize with Orwell for having to enforce imperialism against his morals, it’s important to know that Orwell willingly chose to do this.  After reading this essay with this knowledge, it became harder to empathize with Orwell, but it also added a different level of complexity to it.  Early in the essay, Orwell states that he was “young and ill-educated.”  It shows that his morals may have still been developing when he enlisted and he wanted to serve his country.  By the time of the events within the essay, two years after he was first posted, Orwell’s sense of morality has fully developed.  With his morals in place, he is able to realize the truth behind the British Empire and begins to despise it.  This gives the essay an underlying theme of innocence versus experience.

Quote: “A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened.”  This quote stuck out because thought Orwell seems sympathetic to the Burmese people within the essay, he still feels superior to them.  He expressed his hate for the British Empire multiple times, yet he still seems to buy into the idea of white supremacy.  Though Orwell should be shaking in fear because of the job at hand, he feels he must act superior to the Burmese people and not show fear.

-Steph Lohbeck



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